‘Parkland’: Will Audiences Want to Relive JFK Assassination?

Parkland Movie JFK Assassination

Peter Landesman's film aspires to historical accuracy of national nightmare

Proving your chops as a new director is hard enough. But tackling one of the most monumental and emotionally charged events of the past half century ratchets up the pressure and audience expectations that much more.

Former journalist and novelist Peter Landesman, the screenwriter and director behind the upcoming release “Parkland,” about the events leading up to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath, is quick to acknowledge the burden that comes with telling a true life tale that’s as accurate as it is compelling.

“The assassination is the Rosetta Stone of what America came to be — live TV was born that day,” Landesman said in an interview. “We felt missionized to get it right.”

The sub-$20 million indie picture, which was financed by Exclusive Media and the American Film Co., is tentatively slated to be released Sept. 20 after its worldwide premiere at the Venice Film Festival and North American debut at the Toronto fest — corresponding with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s death on Nov. 22, 1963.

Landesman adapted the film, which stars Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden, Billy Bob Thornton, Jacki Weaver and Paul Giamatti, from Vincent Bugliosi’s massive 2007 tome “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” which documents the chaos that ensued at Dallas’ Parkland Hospital after Kennedy was rushed there and later pronounced dead.

Landesman decided that the first day of production would be in Dealey Plaza, where Kennedy was gunned down in an open limo while riding with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The director started by filming scenes with Giamatti, portraying Abraham Zapruder, a man in the crowd in Dallas whose 26 seconds of homemovie footage of the event became the most closely examined piece of celluloid in history.

“It was a spiritual experience for me,” recalls Landesman. “Paul was just masterful, and that really set the tone for the rest of the shoot.”

The director did not film at Parkland Hospital, which no longer resembles the site as it was in 1963.

After the first day of production, the rest of the film was shot in Austin over 24 days, where the filmmakers located an ideal stand-in for Parkland.

“We found an abandoned psychiatric hospital that was perfect,” Landesman explained. “My cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, was obsessive about making it look exactly the same, down to the tiles and curtains.”

The origins of the movie rest with one of its producers, Bill Paxton, who played a unique role in the project’s beginnings. Paxton was 8 years old when he joined his older brother and father to watch Kennedy give a speech in Fort Worth outside the Hotel Texas, just two hours before the assassination.

In 2007, Paxton saw photos of himself on a man’s shoulders at an event on display at the Sixth Floor Museum in Dealey Plaza, and subsequently purchased “Reclaiming History,” by “Helter Skelter” author Bugliosi.

That led to Paxton suggesting to Tom Hanks at a Los Angeles Dodgers game that he should make a film based on Bugliosi’s book.

Hanks and his producing partner in Playtone Prods., Gary Goetzman, agreed, and the three originally set up the project up as a miniseries at HBO. Paxton, at the time, was starring in Playtone’s HBO series “Big Love,” and had starred with Hanks in Universal Pictures’ 1995 movie “Apollo 13.” Paxton, Hanks and Goetzman declined to be interviewed for this story.

But Bugliosi said the initial plan with HBO simply didn’t work out. In the spring of 2012, Hanks approached Landesman (who had written a script for Playtone about Watergate’s “Deep Throat”) about writing and directing “Parkland.”

“I agreed to option the book after Tom Hanks told me I’d be able to vet the drafts,” Bugliosi said. His book,“Reclaiming History” makes the case that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone — in stark contrast to conspiracy theorists such as director Oliver Stone, whose 1991 film “JFK” had considerable success in furthering that version of history.

Naturally, Bugliosi, 78, hopes the movie, which he has not yet seen, will turn public sentiment his way, but it remains to be seen whether the film can sell anywhere near the amount of tickets that Warner Bros.’ “JFK,” which grossed $205 million worldwide, did 22 years ago.

“Parkland” could face some serious marketing challenges, which Exclusive Media, whose fledgling releasing arm is distributing the movie domestically, declined to discuss.

Landesman asserts that the movie doesn’t have a point of view as to whether Oswald acted alone.

“What we’re looking to do is start a different conversation about historical events,” he explains. The writer-director also believes that “Parkland” will carry plenty of resonance with moviegoers, adding, “Fifty years later, people are still very emotional about that day.”

(Pictured: Paul Giamatti plays Abraham Zapruder, whose film of the Dallas shooting has sparked endless debate.)

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  1. Tom says:

    From the review: “telling a true life tale that’s as accurate as it is compelling”.
    If this work is such an accurate rendition of the events of November 22, 1963, then where is Zapruder’s secretary, Marilyn Sitzman, in the PR shot with Paul Giamatti?
    Zapruder had vertigo and she had to stand behind him to steady him as he filmed the motorcade’s passing.

  2. Pete says:

    What may be just as interesting as the conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination is the backstory of the hospital where JFK died, Parkland Memorial Hospital. Parkland is not only where the President died, but also where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died and where Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby, died. Coincidence?

    Just consider that a doctor resident-in-training, Dr. James Carrico, was the first care taker to receive both JFK and Oswald at Parkland and that Parkland has come under intense fire from government health care regulators the last few years. You can read about the back story about Parkland on “The Parkland Orgy of Death.”

  3. dan stevens says:

    “Parkland” is an attempt to recycle the official lies fed to the public about this crime which was an illegal transfer of power. Oliver Stone in a dramatic film, summarized the findings of careful research.

  4. David Simon, PhD says:

    It sounds so weird that a movie based on a book that argues for a lone assassin takes no position concerning whether or not Oswald did it by himself! Having read some 40 books on the JFK assassination, I can tell you that most of the evidence (circumstantial and based on hearsay though it maybe) points to a conspiracy (as Bobby Kennedy predicted).

  5. Colm Keegan says:

    Lest no one forget, Oswald never had his day in court. Question everything.

  6. What’s the point of making a film that endorses the lone assassin theory? Even a cursory look at all the evidence makes that notion nearly impossible to embrace. I was at Dealey plaza the evening of the assassination and will never forget the flower bedecked grassy knolls, the eerie ambiance and nearly full blood red moon hanging over the city. A schoolmate was a first year med student at U Texas SW medical school affiliated with Parkland, and he was mistaken for a doctor when he cut through the emergency room on his way back to class. Knowing nothing prior about the assassination, he was abruptly told “the President’s been shot and we need to get him inside.” He was commandeered to the limo where he was the first to crawl inside the bloody back seat and help remove Kennedy’s body and help wheel it into the hospital. A hugely traumatic life changing event for him and a generation.

  7. With so many unresolved questions concerning Kennedy’s assassionation, such as Jackie’s accusation that Johnson was behind this murder and that there was more than one shooter, it would be wise to wait. Release the documents rather than protecting the guilty.

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